States counter E.U. efforts to curb capital punishment

Many looked on as Dennis McGuire lay writhing on the execution table, gasping for breath in his final moments of life as his body struggled to reject the poison that had been injected into his veins only minutes before. It had been decided long ago that death by lethal injection was somehow more humane than death by firing squad. It has become clear, however, that the quick and bloodless procedure serves only to humanize the executioner. Death row inmates have become little more than lab rats, as states facing a shortage of the drugs traditionally used for executions begin experimenting with their own untested drug cocktails. The force propelling this shortage, however, may be more surprising than the states’ reaction to it.

The European Union has long maintained a moral opposition to the death penalty, with a stated mission to abolish the practice worldwide. This mission has, for years, been thwarted by European pharmaceutical companies who have traditionally been the main suppliers of the drugs used for lethal injections in the United States. That changed in 2011, when the European Commission severely restricted exports of the anesthetics used for executions in the U.S. Because many U.S. citizens rely on these drugs for pain relief or even to stay alive, the U.S. has had to comply with Europe’s demands lest the export of these drugs to the U.S. be stopped entirely. Illinois-based company Hospira was the only American manufacturer of sodium thiopental, and it halted production of the drug in 2009 after receiving backlash for the drug’s use in lethal injections (Guardian “Europe Moves to Block Trade in Medical Drugs Used for Executions”, 12.20.11).

In its quest to abolish the death penalty, Europe has not stopped with restricting exports. Since 2009, the E.U. has donated over 3.5 million euros to American non-profits working to eradicate capital punishment. However, the E.U. has recognized that the U.S. is not morally evolved enough to completely abolish the death penalty. For this reason, the E.U. hopes that by limiting exports of the drugs used in executions, the death penalty will have to be phased for simply practical reasons.

Sadly, where there is a will, there is a way. While some states have decided to officially abolish executions or stay them indefinitely, others intent on keeping the death penalty are taking matters into their own hands. States such as Ohio and Texas have begun using untested combinations of various available drugs for executions, without any knowledge of the extent to which such cocktails cause inmates undue suffering in the minutes before they die—a suffering technically prohibited under the 8th Amendment as Cruel and Unusual Punishment.

For all of Europe’s efforts to discourage the U.S. from executing its inmates, these efforts make the mistake of assuming that capital punishment will end without lethal injection. It believes there is no way states would revert back to electric chairs, hangings and firing squads—except that Utah last executed an inmate by firing squad just four years ago, and a new Missouri bill would add firing squad as a death penalty option (Washington Times “States scramble to find alternatives as lethal injection drugs run out”, 10.31.13).

The European restriction on exports of the drugs used in lethal injections was a bold move, and the E.U. should certainly be applauded. It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that states advocating capital punishment have suddenly become too progressive to kill their inmates using other methods. Lethal injection is no less barbaric or primitive a practice than the firing squad or the electric chair—it is simply less violent, less dramatic, and therefore more palatable to the American citizenry. Standing ever higher on our moral high ground, championing human dignity and dismissing public executions and stonings as the primitive practices of lesser cultures, we are only becoming further removed from our own hypocrisy.


—Natasha Bertrand ’14 is a political science & philosophy double major.

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